A few weeks ago someone on GP (sorry can’t remember who it was) mentioned that Experimenter, a 2015 film about social psychologist Stanley Milgram, was on Film 4, later that night. I recorded it and got round to watching it a few days ago and I thoroughly recommend it. It reveals something rather disturbing about the state we’re in as a country, and as a society.
For those who don’t know, Milgram conducted a famous obedience to authority experiment in the early 60s, at a time when Nazi war crimes were in the public eye, with the trial of Adolph Eichmann taking place in Jerusalem. Eichmann did not deny what he had done in the war, quite the opposite and he used this as his “defence” in that everything he did, was at the specific request of a superior, that he was only obeying orders. In Milgram’s study, volunteers were given simple, matter of fact instructions to administer an escalating series of electric shocks, to an individual in the next room, whenever they gave the wrong answer to a basic memory test question. This was a person whom they’d just met and believed was also a volunteer, and that they had both been randomly given the role of either “Learner” or “Teacher” for the test.
Milgram was surprised to find that the vast majority of his subjects continued through the whole series to deliver a life threatening shock of 450 volts to the “Learner” in the next room. (He had estimated that few would progress beyond the 300 volt level, reasoning that they would empathise with the “Learner” knowing that they could easily have been given that role themselves). Even when the “Learner” could clearly be heard, apparently crying out in pain and asking to be let out, the “Teacher” carried on with their role of asking questions and flicking the switch when a wrong answer was given. Many did pause to question their instructor, but upon being politely asked to continue, they did so.
The results seemed to expose some uncomfortable truths about human nature and our willingness to blindly obey instructions from an authority figure. Many of the participants later explained that they knew that it was wrong to deliver the electric shocks but that they believed that the instructor was responsible, not them. Milgram called this the “agentic state”, when an individual takes no personal responsibility for their actions, because they are “only doing their job”, they’re just “just following orders”.
The film revealed something I didn’t know; that Milgram received much criticism at the time, for his experiment from academia and the media. Although this is now a classic experiment, included in every psychology course, there was no appetite at the time, for believing that all humans are sheep or in the worst case, that there is an Eichmann hidden within (almost) all of us.
Another famous psychology experiment, features briefly in the film – Solomon Asch’s, group conformity test (Asch had been Milgram’s advisor at Princeton University). In this experiment a group of 8 men sit in a row and are shown a white card with 4 black lines, they are asked to judge which of 3 lines on the RHS (marked A, B, & C) is equal in length to a line on the LHS of the card. Each man in turn, speaks his answer and they move on to the next card. However only one of the 8 men is the subject of the experiment and he is positioned, so that he is always last to answer. After one or two cards the group begin to give the wrong answer, the test being, to see if the subject will follow the group or remain independent and give the obviously correct answer. In the test, most (63.2%) did continue to answer correctly but a sizeable minority (36.8%) conformed with the group and gave the same (wrong) answer. Even those who continued to answer correctly, at odds with the rest of the group, confessed afterwards, to having had doubts and felt pressure to go along with the group answer, but they resisted. The results are evidence for the power of conformity and normative social influence – a willingness to conform to attain social reward and avoid social punishment. Sounds familiar doesn’t it?
You could say that Asch’s work suggests that we have an instinct to conform and Milgram has shown that very simple instructions issued by an authority figure, can reinforce that conditioning, to the degree that many people would willingly inflict pain on others. It seems that the majority will go along with things to avoid social discomfort and that you need to be a strong character to resist this.
If this is how we instinctively behave, you can see how easy it would be to subvert people’s behaviour with simple repetitive rhetoric, poured into their heads as religious dogma, or broadcast incessantly into people’s living rooms as subtle (and not so subtle) propaganda. Reinforcing the message by stamping down hard on those who do not conform or who question things, with primitive punishments, modern day P C shaming and now, new Orwellian laws to prevent “hate”. These are perfectly designed programmes to churn out millions of people in a mindless “agentic state”. And doesn’t this perfectly explain the warped judgement of those thousands of people in public sector jobs, many with child protection specifically in their job title and/or description, who simply ignored industrial scale rape of thousands and thousands of girls up and down the country? They were agentic, they followed some perverted instruction that stated that community cohesion was more important than stopping vile and repulsive criminals preying on the vulnerable. The question is, where did that instruction come from? Who was reminding the people who questioned institutional inaction to carry on, that poor white girls were trash and that destroying their lives, absolutely did not matter?
I’m sure it’s not just me, but I see this everywhere, people have been programmed, taught not to think, just to swallow the dogma and regurgitate it. The frightening thing is that once it is set up, the experiment runs automatically, individuals take their understanding of the rules and apply them, the whole thing gains a life of its own. Activists, fanatics and zealots rise and become the charismatic leaders, they become the go-to spokesmen for Islam, Feminism, Gay Rights, and the more hysterical their behaviour the more exposure they get. You ‘almost’ don’t need a hidden, sinister group or a man in a lab coat orchestrating things, just set up the rules and watch the experiment run. Almost.
The “experimenter” is only needed, and can only be seen when things start to go wrong, when people start to think independently, when they refuse to comply and start to ask awkward questions. The more things go wrong, the more obvious these manipulators become. It is the replies to these awkward questions that expose them as subversives, trying to steer our behaviour in an unnatural direction and to rot our society from the inside.
It’s all rather depressing I’m afraid, and if this state of affairs is allowed to continue then all will soon be lost. Look at what they’ve managed to get away with so far; turning name calling and disapproving looks into hate crimes, creating a whole raft of crimes that can be ignored based on the effect it “might” have on community cohesion and complete and utter paralysis instead of action against an ongoing terrorist rampage. The key is responsibility and accountability. The individuals who make these perverse decisions must be exposed and made to pay for their actions/inaction if we have any chance of stopping the rot.